PRINCETON: Girls hoops climbing high

Nakash, Little Tigers have more confidence on court

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Talya Nakash spent the summer in Peru, where she climbed Machu Picchu.
   She’s spending her winter helping the Princeton High School girls basketball team climb the mountain of respect. PHS improved to 6-2 in the Colonial Valley Conference as they pulled away from Robbinsville for a 41-22 win Friday at home.
   ”This year, we got a lot of confidence when we started off with two wins and we’ve been doing well in the CVC and we’re doing really well at home,” said Nakash, a junior captain who scored two points in the win. “We’re undefeated here. I think especially on our home court, we come out with so much confidence. We expect to win it.”
   It wasn’t so long ago that a slow start and 10-8 first-quarter deficit that PHS faced against Robbinsville could have snowballed into a loss. The mindset is different now.
   ”I feel like last year we’d come into games trying not to lose, not even trying to win,” Nakash said.
   Instead, the Little Tigers responded with a 7-0 second quarter, then expanded their halftime lead with a 14-7 edge in the third quarter to take control against Robbinsville.
   ”We just regrouped and realized we were off to a shaky start,” Nakash said. “I think our second quarter wasn’t so good either. Third quarter, we went into the locker room and said, we need to get this together, we’re playing down to their level, we’re a better team than this. We knew we all had to raise our level of play.”
   Molly Barber led the Little Tigers with 16 points. Tara Thomas added seven points and Julie Berry had six. Madison Cahill scored eight points in the fourth quarter to help the Little Tigers extend their lead despite playing some of their less experienced players.
   ”We were trying to work more on transition,” said PHS head coach Steffanie Shoop. “The girls actually did it. They listened. We worked on it practice. They executed.
   ”The first quarter, we were playing very slow. Defensively and offensively, we were a little off our game. So the girls kicked it into second gear and started to push the ball up in the second quarter.”
   They impressively pitched a shutout in the second quarter. It’s that sort of defensive effort that the Little Tigers are getting more and more frequently.
   ”I think our defense has been rock solid, and that’s been keeping us in games,” Nakash said. “Our offense has often been struggling, but our defense has always been pretty solid just because all of us have played together so long. The five starters, we’ve been playing together since fifth grade. We always know exactly where someone’s moving and we move really well together. It’s been keeping us in games.”
   PHS effectively alternated between its zone and man-to-man to slow down Robbinsville’s attack.
   ”Robbinsville is a good team,” Shoop said. “They’re fast and they can run and they have some good shooters. We were trying to make sure that they didn’t penetrate, and we were trying to make sure we rotated out on the shooters.
   ”Our team has really been focusing on the defense, and practicing different kinds of defense,” she said. “We’ve been working on making sure that we’re versatile so that if a team throws different offenses at us, we can adjust. That’s been our goal.”
   PHS is asking more of its players, and getting more in return. In Nakash is one of the biggest changes that Shoop sees in most of her players.
   ”Confidence,” Shoop said. “That’s the difference. They came into the year and knew they could play and they wanted to play. They were talking about how excited they were for the season to start.”
   While Nakash took a basketball on her service trip, the mountains of Peru didn’t make for a good practice court. But in the fall, she stopped playing soccer for PHS to prepare for the basketball season.
   ”That was good for me,” she said. “I knew the girls had been dedicated and played in the summer and I wanted to focus on basketball. I felt maybe a little behind. I hadn’t really played with them.”
   Increased dedication is part of the next step for the Little Tigers. Before defeating Robbinsville, PHS got a taste of an elite team when they lost to Trenton. It gave them an idea of what sort of program they want to become.
   ”Trenton is always a learning experience,” Nakash said. “Those are some of the best girls in the state. Coach was talking to us about how they play year-round and they have so much commitment to the game. They’re amazing players because they work so hard. They’re some of the hardest workers in the league. Just doing Trenton League over the summer, and working over the summer are key for us. And they have really good team chemistry. I think we do too, but I think we can learn a lot from them with their dedication and commitment.”
   It’s part of taking the next step for a PHS team that has earned respect around the CVC and, with a significant junior class, is still on the rise. Nakash is helping to bring along the younger players along with fellow captains Barber and Julie Maltby.
   ”I think the next step is just time,” Shoop said. “It’s working in the offseason, it’s getting better at playing in places like Trenton League. Running with the best will make you the best. In the season, you can work on defense and how to trap and that stuff, but in the offseason is where you get better.
   ”If you look at our other years, and look at how much we improved, I’m just so proud. I’m so proud of them skill-wise, I’m so proud of them mentally. I’m so proud of their work ethic. They’re just good people. They’re smart. They get good grades in school. They’re great kids. They’re fun to be around. They really know they have the ability to make a difference. It’s great to be around that and feel that the program has a chance to change.”
   For the PHS girls basketball team, the mountain is getting smaller.